The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has unleashed a national dragnet that is hunting down "fugitive aliens." DHS has 75 Fugitive Operations Teams that are mounting raids across the country. But only a small number of these arrested fugitives are actual criminals, and some of the immigrants that are handcuffed and shackled by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are U.S. citizens or legal U.S. residents.

ICE, the DHS agency in charge of immigration investigations, is producing a stream of news releases hailing the success of these eight-person fugitive teams that stage coordinated raids. ICE agents invariably say that the operations aim to "restore integrity" to immigration enforcement.

Last year ICE arrested 30,048 immigrants in these fugitive round-up operations. That’s up almost double from 2002, and 15 times as many netted in 2003.

ICE fugitives are not hardened criminals. In fact, in most cases they are not criminals at all. "An ICE fugitive," explains the agency, "is defined as an alien who has failed to depart the United States based upon a final order of removal, deportation, or exclusion; or who has failed to report to a Detention and Removal Officer after receiving notice to do so."

These targeted fugitives, then, are not criminals fleeing justice but immigrants who either ignored mailed communication from ICE or the Justice Department or never received these orders to appear. In either case, they are placed on a list of nearly of nearly 600,000 ICE fugitives that are being tracked down by the agency’s fugitive teams.

In addition, ICE hunts down "criminal aliens," those immigrants charged with crimes in the United States or who have a criminal record here. However, increasingly criminal aliens may merely be immigrants who have falsified a Social Security number or illegally reentered the United States and are being charged with aggravated felonies in accordance with the Bush administration’s policy of criminalizing immigrants.

Absconders Become Fugitives

The Bush administration began assembling its Fugitive Operations Teams in February 2002 as part of its "war on terrorism." Although a campaign against immigrant "absconders" was authorized in 1995 and reauthorized in 1998, it wasn’t until late 2001 that the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), at the behest of the attorney general, launched the Absconder Apprehension Initiative as a complement to new security measures of the USA Patriot Act.

Homeland Security, created by the Bush administration in March 2003, took over the absconder program, setting up the National Fugitive Operations Program. No longer were these immigrants called absconders, they were now labeled "fugitives," reflecting the hard-line posture of the new department.

Today, there are 75 seven-person operations teams with another 29 scheduled to come on line by the end of 2008. Spread around the country, each team has its own geographical focus, although teams often collaborate in "surges"—the ICE term for escalations of fugitive hunts that bring together other teams in the region for multi-day raids.

DHS has established ambitious goals for the fugitive pursuit teams.

In its 2003 strategic plan Endgame, ICE’s Office of Detention and Removal Operations linked alien removal to the country’s post-9/11 national security strategy: "Moving toward a 100% rate of removal for all removable aliens is critical to allow the ICE to provide the level of immigration enforcement necessary to keep America secure. Without this final step in the process, apprehensions made by other DHS programs cannot truly contribute to national security."

"ICE focuses on removing dangerous criminal aliens from our communities, and on restoring integrity to our nation’s legal immigration system," says Julie L. Myers, assistant secretary for ICE. "Those who participate in due process but flee when they lose their court cases will be located, apprehended, and removed."

As part of its 2003 Endgame strategic plan, ICE set the goal of eliminating the fugitive backlog by 2012. At first, there was also a strong emphasis on measuring progress by the number of "criminal aliens" arrested rather than "fugitive aliens" who have no criminal history.

But ICE has since dropped the criminal alien standard. As a DHS report on the program observed, the "productivity" of the teams was inhibited by the criminal alien guideline. Now ICE measures the program’s "productivity" by the total number of fugitive aliens, criminal aliens, and immigration violators caught, and by decreases in the fugitive backlog.

In January 2006 ICE set a goal of 1,000 annual apprehensions for each Fugitive Operations Team—a goal that fosters broadly targeted sweeps by the teams.

ICE continues to assert that its Fugitive Operations Teams give "top priority" to cases involving "aliens who pose a threat to national security and community safety." The top-to-bottom priorities of the fugitive teams, according to ICE, are: "(1) fugitives posing a threat to the nation; (2) fugitives posing a threat to the community; (3) fugitives with a violent criminal history; (4) criminal fugitives; and (5) non-criminal fugitives."

But these priorities don’t mean that ICE’s Fugitive Operations Teams won’t pick up non-criminal, non-fugitive immigrants. So wide is their net that the teams are sometimes arresting citizens and immigrants who are in the process of being nationalized, thus spreading fear throughout the immigrant and Latino communities.

Raids Without Warrants

No warrants are needed for ICE raids on immigrant households. Legal or not, immigrants who aren’t naturalized citizens don’t have the same constitutional rights as citizens. When the ICE agents in their blue windbreakers with "Police" emblazoned on their backs knock on the door of the home of a suspected fugitive, they don’t carry warrants and don’t have to present any evidence.

ICE police can question suspected aliens about their immigration status, and can search them and their homes without warrants. Nor do ICE agents have to read "aliens" Miranda rights. Arrested immigrants do have the right to a lawyer, but they will need to find and pay for the lawyer.

Immigration courts are part of the Justice Department, but they are not part of the judiciary with judges. They are more administrative hearings rather than true courts.

As a New York Times story by Julia Preston noted: "Even immigrants who have lived here legally for many years, lawyers said, can run afoul of the immigration laws with minor infractions or misdemeanors. A late filing of visa renewal papers or a shoplifting citation can quickly spiral into an order for the ultimate penalty: deportation. Immigrants who fight the orders have more limited bail rights than American criminals and can spend years behind bars while their cases inch through the overburdened court system."

Announcing themselves simply as "Police" or "Policía," the ICE agents search homes in dawn raids looking for the targeted fugitive. As often as not, however, they don’t find the fugitive, but that doesn’t mean they walk away empty-handed. The raids routinely produce "collateral," or immigrants who aren’t part of the fugitive databank but are in the country without the proper documents.

Fugitive immigrants are hard to find, not necessarily because they are hiding, but because the government often lacks hard information. According to a 2006 DHS report, nearly half of the information in ICE’s "Deportable Alien Control System"—a database of immigrants to be deported—was incorrect or incomplete. Not only does this lack of accurate information about where targeted immigrants live mean that the Fugitive Operations Teams often fail to find the fugitive, but it also means that in practice these ICE police find themselves in homes of other undocumented immigrants who they simply arrest as "collateral."

Nationally, such collateral arrests account for about 30% of all arrests by the fugitive teams. Of the 30,048 immigrants caught in fugitive raids in 2007, more than 8,000 were collateral immigration violators.

More Collateral Damage

Homeland Security has failed to demonstrate that its fugitive operations are arresting immigrants who threaten national security. Instead of increasing security at home, the escalating raids of the Fugitive Operations Teams are leading to a worrisome pattern of abuses of the civil rights of U.S. citizens and legal residents who are caught in these "surges."

Adriana Aguilar, a U.S. citizen living in East Hampton, NY, has filed a civil rights suit against ICE for violating her Fourth Amendment rights when ICE agents burst into her bedroom where she was asleep with her 4-year-old son, shining flashlights into her face before interrogating her.

In a June 11 speech on ICE arrest and detention practices, giving several examples of U.S. citizens who had been harassed by ICE, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) told the Senate, "The legitimate desire to get control over our borders has too often turned into a witch-hunt against Hispanic Americans and other people of color." American citizens, he said, "are targeted because of their race, targeted because of their color—denied every fundamental right guaranteed by the United States Constitution. Common sense repeatedly loses out to hysteria, and agents of intolerance repeatedly jump over the legal protections to which every single American is entitled."

Homeland Security’s Fugitive Operations Teams typify the problems created by the Bush administration’s immigration crackdown. Incorporating immigration policy into national security strategy, the administration treats immigrants as security threats and criminals. Surges, collateral, and fugitives are the new terms used in this war at home.

No doubt that immigration policy is broken. But Homeland Security’s hard-line on immigration—adopted from the immigration restrictionists—is not mending a failed and broken policy but creating new collateral damage in the form of broken homes, violated rights, and a climate of fear.

A new administration needs to revisit immigration policy. Yes, fugitives should be hunted down and detained, but real fugitives—truly criminal immigrants on the lam, not immigrants struggling to make a life for themselves and their families.

The integrity of immigration policy needs to be restored, and the first step should be to extricate immigration policy from the corrupting influence of Homeland Security, which regards immigration as a national security problem rather than the complex socioeconomic issue that it is.


  • Trackback: Chertoff’s Challenge to Obama – CIP Americas
  • Kerrie Moczo
    Posted September 16, 2011 8:31 am 0Likes

    First of all allow my family appreciate a persons command during this matter Even though this is certainly brand new nevertheless soon after registering your site this intellect has exploded extensively Allow all of us to take hold of ones rss to help keep in touch with at all probable messages Sincere understand but will pass it on to help admirers and my private are living members

Comments are closed.